Sunday, February 27, 2005

Proposal: Baghdad Grid Monitor

A graphical gizmo or gadget we'd like added to this control room: some quasi real time refreshing interface, perhaps a Java applet or XML-backed Flash widget, that gives an accurate picture of rolling brownouts in Baghdad. If traffic signals are affected, per Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories, this should receive special mention.

This web service could easily be expanded with more graphical gizmos as time goes on, e.g. it's not just Baghdad we care about. There'd be no special authorization required to view it. This information is public, not classified (which doesn't mean the CIA couldn't serve it and/or source the information).

Once this new web service is in place, we might think of various applications for it. For example, I might propose that for every hour some part of Baghdad is without power, that the annual income of each USA congressperson automatically drops by one dollar. Of course that's way too forgiving, plus Congress'd find a loophole in about 10 seconds. So my proposal has symbolic value only. Still, I'd like to see the numbers.

Related blog post: FAQ: So What's Global Data?


Dan Rather got it right on David Letterman (2005.3.3): infrastructure, and the state of the Iraqi electrical grid in particular, is the barometer, the key parameter to watch (paraphrasing)

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

On the Edge of Chaos

Recent mathematics has converged to a state of "controlled chaos" which many consider the optimized space for innovation and creative response. The degrees of freedom are many, but not so many as to destroy any sense of rules, of a game. But nor are freedoms so restricted as to make every response "by the numbers" -- a game for AI robots instead of human beings.

War gamers well know that simulations never fully anticipate all the ripple effects of wartime scenarios. An attack commences, and the avalanche of unintended consequences begins. Then come the ad hoc responses, an attempt to keep some semblance of control over events. Finding a way to stop a war becomes central -- they're relatively easy to start, but hard to reign in, once the violence is unleashed.

World Game likewise acknowledges the limitations of simulations. This emphasis on "control rooms" may seem perversely control freaky to some, as they know in their gut that life on the edge of chaos cannot be controlled. There's a dance, a set of feedback loops, but it's ridiculous to suppose any mastermind is on top of everything -- which is why these Dr. Evil paranoias so rarely make any long term sense.

However, given World Game is concerned with building a lot of civilian infrastructure, there's more confidance going in that the synergies will be positive, whereas war gamers rightly expect increasingly grave situations.

Dee Hock of Visa talks a lot about "chaordic" enterprises. They're designed to self-organize and spread, but not under anyone's thumb. The Internet is another obvious example. And we've seen many positive synergies in both scenarios. Visa cards are a great invention, even if they're abused in many cases. Likewise the Internet has given rise to many unforeseen (plus anticipated) abuses. Yet in both cases, I'd say the positives far outweigh the negatives.

So yes, I'll readily admit that I'm not in control, even as I sit here in my control room, enjoying a lot of overview, plus some sense of steering the ship. I'm a powerful guy, sure, but I'm not masterminding the whole show, any more than any Dr. Evil is able to, from his cybernetic fortress of solitude. I'm one world game player among many, trying to do my part for the cause.

To war gamers, I may appear somewhat reckless, in my willingness to trigger avalanche effects, knowing in advance that I'm not going to be in control of them. But it's a two way street: I wonder how war gamers get away with being so cavalier, so blithe, so full of hubris, when their triggering events (e.g. aerial attacks) contain so much violence and pain. At least I'm not misanthropic.

World Game involves putting a lot of positive artifacts and tools out there, a Johnny Appleseed approach. Pepper the landscape with goodies, stuff people may find useful. Then look for ways to switch energy towards these somewhat sketchy circuits, maybe throttling back if unanticipated show stoppers arise.

In my view, this is how the USG itself got off the ground: a lot of well-architected infrastructure was implanted and set running. Over two hundred years later, the resulting controlled chaos is still a source of positive synergy. But we can't stop seeding the future. It's up to us to plant and nurture, even if we don't really know what all the ripple effects will be. That's just life.

However, if the focus is lasting/sustainable success for omnihumanity (Fuller's goal), versus myopic "you or me" survival of the most brutish, then the likelihood of reaping a reward vastly increases.

If your game is death and destruction, you're basically incompetent and need to be sidelined. That doesn't mean I'm anti-military though. Defending the long term integrity of the USG, by defending against inferior and undermining ideologies, remains an important aspect of World Game. The Russians do the same, and more power to 'em.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Simulators in World Game

Monitoring global data is one thing. Mandating interventions or corrective maneuvers is quite another. Yet on the bridge of the Enterprise (a federation starship), the captain must do both. It's not enough just to stand and stare, as everything goes to hell, freezing in a panic or whatever. Fortunately for the Enterprise, Spock is always happy to relieve Kirk of duty, if that's what it takes (or maybe the Klingons will step in).

So how shall we develop our captain's reflexes and conceptual understanding, such that she's well prepared to respond quickly (or slowly, patiently) as the situation demands? Answer: simulations, dry runs, mock ups, rehearsals. This is what every discipline tends to come up with: some way to allow an apprentice to learn from her mistakes without paying too high a cost.

NASA learned the importance of simulations long ago. Mission Control would go through the final stages of landing on the moon with the astronauts, and maybe crash the LEM a few times.

Of special interest along a critical path are those points of no return. Up to some point, you have abort capability, after which point, you've committed. The LEM crew might find itself stuck on the moon, if it chose to commit, then discovered a problem -- hence the importance of check lists.

In the press of the moment, check lists developed in times of cool, calm clarity often prove a valuable counter to the grip of fear or, potentially as dangerous, the eager thrill to rush onward. Plus there's just a heck of a lot to remember. Pilots use check lists as a matter of course. On contemporary aircraft, they're built right into the cockpit display.

Another form of simulation is field testing. Robotic rovers, designed to explore remote planets, first get a workout on Earth, perhaps in some desert. These tests disclose the limitations of the equipment, plus give remote controllers some all important experience. Sometimes the feedback loop is artifically slowed, given the lag times associated with what will eventually be the real time distances between pilots and robots. The speed of light is finite, after all.

World Game has always featured simulations. A gymnasium-sized world map would be unrolled, and participants assigned roles, as diplomats, journalists, heads of state, corporate executives. The clock would start, and players would swing into action, trying to self-organize human affairs on a global scale.

Typically, the scenario would end in disaster, and one of the trainers, e.g. Chuck Dingée, would come out with the buckets of red poker chips, each symbolizing the blast and/or fallout radius of a nuclear explosive. There'd be enough chips to effectively cover most of the map's landmasses.

Players would survey the damage and feel relieved that this was only a test. As they walked out the door into the bright sunlight, the trainers would remind them: now world game begins for real.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Mapparium

Any control room worth its salt has global data displays in the round, simulations of the planet. A flat map of the world then derives from this globe via some projection algorithm, of which we have several.

One of the more interesting control rooms I've visited is the Mapparium in Boston. All these years later I still treasure my Korea-made vinyl Mapparium tote bag, my one souvenir from that nuclear disarmament conference I attended on behalf of the AFSC.

The Mapparium is this walk-through globe, 30 feet in diameter, with backlit glass panels providing a view of the oceans and continents, plus an overlay of political data. Off to the side, there's a situation room with a desk and additional monitoring equipment (I'm hazy on the details). Christian Scientists want overview and spent big money to get it ($8,900 in 1935). And why not? More power to 'em.

In science fiction movies, such control rooms may belong to some nefarious master mind, some Dr. Evil with a plan for world domination. We want the good guys (our team) to have a slick control room, but maybe not the competition. Overview is a strategic asset. If Dr. Evil has better overview than you do, well better call batman or 007 or someone who will put those bad guys out of business -- and that usually means a thrilling climax with lots of explosions, or at least some hand-to-hand combat. The situation may look rather dim for our hero at times, which adds to the suspense. We all know the formula. Hollywood has it down pat.

In Critical Path, Fuller sketched an outdoor geoscope, 200 feet in diameter, that'd be "highly visible to occupants of the UN building as well as to all those in New York City in the vicinity of Fiftieth Street." (pg. 175) His original idea for the Montreal '67 Expo Pavilion was likewise geoscopic -- a flat map transforming into a globe every so often. World Game computers would illuminate its many bulbs with various overlays, billboard style.

Both projects had a psychological dimension, which was precessionally important even though neither was actually implemented: instead of locking his global data displays in some spooky, secret cave, accessible only to those with high level clearances, he was projecting onto very public surfaces. Every UN diplomat would know that every other UN diplomat was seeing. That in itself was a revolutionary aspect of his design.

Today we'd call it "free and open source global data."

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Big Picture Plasma

Monitor 0: No feed at this time -- fish screen saver on steroids
Monitor 1: Talking Head -- a clever self-promoter of some kind
Monitor 2: Coordinate Geometry -- geek channel cartoons
Monitor 3: American History -- some PBS documentary?
Monitor 4: Global Energy Grid -- test pattern (still in the works)
Monitor 5: A Battle -- some weird military or scifi channel thing

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Joint Ventures?

I got a call from Richard Amerman out of the blue the other day. He and I are Plone afficionados -- like, we both attended that sprint with Alan Runyaga and Andy McKay in Victoria that time. He wants to do some global data displays using Plone, in collaboration with a biodiesel guy I haven't met yet. They might need my help in some way. Sounds like fun.

On another front, I met a former webmaster with Sesame Street (Consoletti introduced us). He reminded me that Grover (a kid favorite) and Yoda (the Jedi Knight), are the same guy, Frank Oz (just like Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are both performed by Carroll Spinney). This webmaster has also worked as a counselor with navam kids.

I still remember those posters that came out after 911, with Osama Bin Laden in the foreground, and in the background: Evil Burt. I took a screen shot of that in my brief case when I flew off to the east coast in October of 2001, to visit (among others) Kenneth Snelson in Manhatten and Stuart Quimby in upstate New York; a spark of humor in a very dark time.

That's the time Ken gave me Barrel Tower, a fantastic gift that sits proudly in my office. I had to get it back through airline security at EWR (too big for the metal detector, and besides, it's all metal, so what's to detect?).